I was unsure of what to expect when I picked up American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Admittedly a fictionalized account of the life of former First Lady, Laura Bush, I didn’t know how I would be able to digest Sittenfeld’s version of George and Laura Bush with the version that is portrayed in the media. Would there be striking similarities? Did Sittenfeld deviate from fact or did she base most of the story on Laura Bush’s life? Personally, by the time I finished American Wife, I no longer saw the protagonist and her husband as George and Laura Bush but rather as Alice and Charlie Blackwell.
The book begins with Alice Lindgren, at the time an eight year old living in Wisconsin with her eccentric grandmother and two parents. Alice seems friendly but reserved. Her major hobby, which was expounded throughout the book and made Alice the most relatable to me, was her passion for books and reading. Every few pages involved mention of one book or another, which to a fanatic like me is always interesting.
Unfortunately for Alice, her innocence is smashed with the fatal car accident involving her and her crush, Andrew Imhof. The car accident represents one of the parallels between Laura Bush and Alice Lindgren. Unfortunately, Alice’s circumstances are all to real because Laura Bush was involved in a car accident as a teenager as well, which also resulted in the death of one of her male peers. In the book, Andrew’s demise led Alice to feelings of remorse and pity, so much so that she seeks solace in the arms of Andrew’s brother, Pete Imhof. The relationship results in a pregnancy, which is terminated illegally, being that the pregnancy occurred in 1963, well before the time of Roe vs Wade. Laura Bush has spoken out before against abortion, although the subject is not one that she is overly vocal about, much like Alice in American Wife. However, as convinced as my boyfriend is that Laura Bush has had at least one abortion (he swears he read it or heard it on the news) I cannot find any evidence to buttress that.
From the point of the abortion onward, the book slides further and further from reality for me. I was never able to reconcile Charlie Blackwell as George Bush in my mind, although I think that was a positive for me. It made the book seem more its own as opposed to being more of a biography. With the exception of the fourth (last) section, I gave up trying to read the book as an interpretation of the Bushes but instead read it as a stand alone book. However, the fourth section of the book seems to deviate from the other three and cast somewhat of a different light on American Wife. This section of the book deals with Charlie Blackwell’s presidency and many factors are based on reality: the 2000 election, the terrorist attacks and the War on Terror. I don’t think Sittenfeld did that great of a job segueing into the last portion because it differed so much from the rest of the book, although perhaps that was the point. Here is Alice Lindgren, who already had quite a life change when she married Charlie in the first place. Now she is thrown into the limelight as the First Lady, married to a man she loves but doesn’t take seriously. It’s so different from her life before that maybe Sittenfeld was trying to showcase that fact even more.
One of the most interesting themes of the book for me was the idea of Alice being culpable for her husband’s decisions. As First Lady, she seemed to meet quite a few people who felt she was partially to blame for Charlie’s transgressions. Maybe she didn’t personally endorse his ideals, but wasn’t she guilty just for being married to him? It was an interesting connundrum for me. The short answer would be, of course she’s not responsible for her husband’s beliefs or actions. Yet, in delving in further, is it responsible of Alice to allow her husband to decide what is right and what is wrong, what is necessary and unnecessary, with Alice having no say? Does she have to stand behind beliefs that are not her own solely because her husband is the president? In reading the book, I could see both sides. What spouse doesn’t want to be supportive of their partner? Every relationship involves compromise, and this was Alice’s. But . . . shouldn’t she be entitled to her own opinions just the same? Shouldn’t she be entitled to voice those opinions to whomever she chooses?
Overall, Alice’s character was resilient and reasonable. She proved to be quite the antithesis of Charlie. I think in respect to the former, Alice resembled Laura Bush greatly. I would say, however, that this book is probably better received as a stand alone book rather than focusing so much on Laura and George Bush. I suppose that perception is different for every reader though, and for that reason I would suggest reading this book with an open mind. However a reader chooses to interpret it, Sittenfeld has written a worthy book that I would highly recommend.
If you’re interested in further reviews on American Wife, below are some reviews by other bloggers.